Local food-service businesses must find a way to divert organic materials

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Updated Nov. 29 at 2:30 p.m. to correct the name of Allen Schroeder’s organization, Save the Food. 

Austin’s grocery stores, farmers markets, restaurants, bars and catering companies are now required to divert organic materials from landfills.

These materials—which include leftover food scraps; paper towels and napkins; food-soiled paper, cardboard and wax board; landscape trimmings; and floral decor—represent nearly half of the waste disposed in landfills, according to the Austin Resource Recovery Master Plan.

City Council adopted the master plan in 2011 with the goal to divert at least 90 percent of discarded materials by 2040.

On Oct. 1 the organics diversion requirement, which is an outgrowth of that plan, took full effect following two years of phased implementation.

“Generally organic material, when it goes to a landfill, it doesn’t break down naturally, and it creates methane gas, which is harmful to the environment,” said Memi Cardenas, a spokesperson for ARR, which manages collection of trash, recycling, yard trimmings and compost for about 200,000 residential customers.

To comply with this ordinance affected businesses are able to choose from a variety of options: feeding hungry people by donating extra food to food banks, soup kitchens or shelters; feeding animals by donating food scraps to regional or community ranches; or composting.

“This is really addressing not only keeping things out of the landfill but [also]finding higher and better use for the material,” ARR Senior Planner Jason McCombs said.

Local Need

More than 1 in 6 Travis County residents—and nearly 1 in 4 children—struggles with food insecurity, according to the Central Texas Food Bank.

Allen Schroeder, founder of the local nonprofit Save the Food, works with local grocers, including Wheatsville Co-op, Sprouts and Fresh Plus, to recover unsold food, which he then helps distribute to area food pantries.

“It’s so easy to take food [stores]no longer deem sellable and throw it away,” Schroeder said.

Food recovery is hard to execute, Schroeder said, and requires buy-in from store directors and employees.

“It’s creating a whole new culture of generosity within a store,” he said.

But the payoff is significant.

Along with nine volunteers, Schroeder helps recover around 6,000 pounds of food each week, which roughly equates to around 4,800 meals.

“It changes their life,” he said of the individuals who receive recovered food. “It allows them to spend their money on something else,” such as rent, health care or their children.

Costs and Benefits

Wheatsville Co-op, which has two grocery stores in Central Austin, began composting and donating leftover food nearly a decade ago, Chief Executive Grocer Dan Gillotte said.

“Wheatsville did it for a reason: because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “If it takes the city telling others to do it, it’s still the right thing to do.”

Gillotte acknowledged that composting costs money, mainly because of the additional pickup it requires. However, composting also allows Wheatsville to recoup some of its losses by decreasing the size of its dumpsters and how often they are emptied.

Jenn McNevin, co-owner of Manuel’s Mexican Restaurant and Changos Taqueria, said her businesses have decided to donate scrap food to area ranches because she likes the idea of feeding animals with the waste instead of turning it into dirt.

In her first month of organics diversion McNevin has found compost pickup costs around $500 in, more than she expected.

“It may cut into profits, but we would rather make the change,” she said.

Other businesses have built their models around organics diversion rather than having to adapt in response to this requirement.

South Austin’s Cosmic Coffee + Beer Garden, which opened in January, not only composts but also harvests rainwater, raises its own chickens, tends a garden and offers compostable straws.

“Being sustainable, not just a zero impact but also [having]a positive impact on our environment, is what we built this whole business around,” co-owner Paul Oveisi said.

Additional reporting by Amy Denney

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Emma Freer
Emma Freer began covering Central Austin for Community Impact Newspaper in 2017. Her reporting focuses include employment and economic development. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School in 2017.
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